Vienna Philharmonic, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Langgaard, Elgar

I was not planning on going to a concert during a quick weekend trip home, but sometimes I just get curious and grab a ticket if one is available last minute.  The Vienna Philharmonic performed tonight in the Konzerthaus, Vienna’s second major hall, with a concert featuring music by the forgotten Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952).  Having Sakari Oramo on the podium and Sol Gabetta on cello hardly dissuaded me.

It seems Langgaard’s Symphony #6 (written in 1919-20 and fully revised between 1928-30) is supposed to be typical of his output.  The composer’s father had been a piano student of Liszt, so this became the young man’s starting point – his symphonic writing being more tone poem than symphony, just without the plot.  Apparently he became fascinated with Scriabin, too, so his music showed heavy influence from the zany Russian.  At times, the music also bore a resemblance to that of his contemporary Paul Hindemith (whom he knew).  With all of that said, Liszt, Scriabin, and Hindemith all went somewhere with their music.  Langgaard – although making this symphony a setting of a theme and various variations on it, with theatrical extra brass (a whole additional row of trumpets sat in the choir seats) and percussion, I never got the sense that the work had any particular meaning.

I might give other works by Langgaard a listen (if they ever appear on a concert program – which they never do), but I suppose I can understand why he has not entered the repertory (it’s not bad music, but if we have Liszt, Scriabin, and Hindemith all in the original, we don’t really need Langgaard).  That said, tonight’s symphony was infinitely more original than almost anything composed by Langgaard’s older countryman Carl Nielsen, whose interminable music has inexplicably entered the standard repertory.

To introduce the Langgaard symphony, Oramo opened the concert with Sibelius‘ tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter, in possibly one of the finest performances I have heard of that work.  The opening cello solo was other-worldly, and the various virtuosic woodwinds built on that to take us into the realm of Finnish mythology.  The violin shrieks – depicting the girl’s mocking laughter – propelled the work forward, as the winds tried valiently in back to achieve the tasks she had set for them.  Some of this coloration certainly helped set up the Langgaard work to make it more understandable, I suppose, but Sibelius was the undisputed master of northern color.

After the intermission, Gabetta joined Oramo and the orchestra for Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, demonstrating both dexterity and lyricism.  Elgar used the cello to set out each section of the concerto and then let the orchestra blend in.  Only a rare cellist can effectively lead a whole orchestra, and more rarely when that orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic.  Gabetta established her mastery this evening.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Alfeyev

I followed the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Fedoseyev to Vienna for the third concert with them in four days.  It does help when they have a good variety on the program.  This evening, the Choir of the Moscow Synod joined them for a selection of choral church music.

The concert opened, however, with an overture that was not especially religious: to Rimsky-Korsakov‘s opera The Invisible City of Kitezh.  I suppose that was to set the mood, which it did with its hymnlike theme, although rearranging the stage to shift the right musicians and instruments afterwards before the choral music rather broke the mood.

Two selections from Rachmaninov‘s All Night Vigil followed: Rachmaninov’s take on traditional Russian church music forms.  This made a nice bridge to Stravinsky‘s Symphony of Psalms, which took an old idea and somehow created an entirely new concept all together.  The chorus pulled both sets off, with the orchestra – or the odd group of musicians Stravinsky scored the work for – joining in merrily.  Indeed, this was a merry reading, a happy way to praise the Lord.  Stravinsky’s method was rather complex, but under Fedoseyev’s organizing structure it sounded almost easy.

These works nicely set the table for something new (or was it also just something old made new?) after the intermission: works by the composer Grigoriy Alfeyev, who under his ordination name, Metropolitan Hilarion, is the Russian Orthodox Church’s current minister of external relations.  He’s a little older than me, but exactly overlapped with me at Oxford when we were both doing our doctorates (I don’t believe we ever met).

The first piece by Alfeyev set the Catholic Latin text Stabat Mater.  Not surprisingly, then, it opened in a classical church music tradition that suggested some influence from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and early Bruckner (when Bruckner was still composing church music).  It then moved from the Brucknerian in the (not actually unrelated) direction of Taneyev (who was the great professor of counterpoint at the Moscow conservatory in the late 19th century).  Taneyev’s students included Rachmaninov and Scriabin, so it was probably not surprising that the piece started to head that way… except for some neo-Baroque orchestral interludes.

Alfeyev’s Songs of Pilgramage followed, based on excerpts from Psalms in Russian language translations.  Perhaps because they were Russian texts (and not Latin), they owed more to a combination of traditional Russian choral church music but passed through the development of Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and beyond.  I suppose befitting a high-ranking figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, it never got too radical, and the textual language remained clear (thanks also to the talent of the choir), but it nevertheless came across as new and fresh.  Fedoseyev, on the podium, seemed careful.  Indeed, if I had to categorize his interpretive style in all three concerts I have heard this week, I would say that Fedoseyev has demonstrated enormous control over the performances, keeping them well-contained and allowing for full color – if not especially bold, then at least especially balanced and thoughtful.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Mozart, Copland, Schubert

I went to see and hear for myself, as 27-year-old rapidly rising star Lahav Shani conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra at the Konzerthaus this evening.  About a year ago, he sprung in to conduct the Philharmonic when the scheduled conductor canceled on short notice due to illness, and the reviews were incredible.  This led to more bookings with the Philharmonic and other orchestras (including the Symphoniker tonight), and he will soon take over as music director in Rotterdam, often a stepping-stone to a star career.

This evening’s performance did not disappoint.  The opening work – the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart – enabled Shani to reveal often-hidden lines.  The strings drove the action forward, but the winds created tension, to set up the impending comedy.  Shani highlighted these juxtapositions, and the excellent Symphoniker responded just so.

Similarly, for the second half of the concert, Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony capped off the concert.  Although I am not sure I heard any new nuances I did not alread know, this performance – clearly thought-through by Shani and expertly performed by the Symphoniker at the pinacle of the idiom – did provide a vivid reminder of just how majestic and exciting this symphony can be, and in many ways how visionary as well.  Shani will certainly grow further as his career takes off.

In between these two standard pieces came Aaron Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto, with soloist Sabine Meyer.  The first movement arrived full of melancholy, which led into a cadenza-only movement that began to awaken the instrument before jumping into a somewhat more flamboyant finale.  Copland wrote the work on commission for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.  There is jazz-like syncopation, requiring versatility, but this is not jazz and falls cleanly within a classical paradigm, if tending to something new.  Meyer, dextrous of tongue, danced to the music as she played.  Her unidentified encore was in the same style as the cadenza, but considerably faster.

Bamberg Symphony, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Schubert, Bruckner

I had not planned to be home in Vienna this weekend, but once here I decided to see if there would be last-minute tickets available for otherwise sold out concerts, and I got lucky with one tonight and one tomorrow afternoon.

Tonight’s offer, in the Konzerthaus, allowed me to hear Herbert Blomstedt and the Bamberg Symphony explore the architecture of Schubert and Bruckner in a well-paired concert containing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and  Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.

The Swedish-American Blomstedt, still amazingly spritely at 89 years old, is a master builder of orchestral sound.  The Bamberg Symphony, originally founded by ethnic Germans exiled from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War (victims of the post-war reprisals against Nazi Germany’s policies towards that country – although some of them probably less-than-innocent victims), is an orchestra I only knew of through its solid recordings and reputation, and now got to hear live for the first time (the current orchestra members are obviously not the original ones, so it’s a new generation from the days of its old recordings).

From tonight’s performance, we clearly saw how much Schubert inspired Bruckner.  Blomstedt constructed the two movements of the Unfinished out of solid building blocks, while still enabling the lyrical melodies to sore, in many ways a prototype for Bruckner.  Having heard Beethoven’s expansive Eroica Symphony on Wednesday with a scaled-down orchestra, it was refreshing for me to hear Schubert’s often dainty Unfinished with a full ensemble on stage.  This was a mighty performance, without sacrificing any of the charm.  The low string rumblings at the opening of the first movement set the foundations in place upon which Blomstedt built the pillars to hold up the soaring roof.  He also emphasized often unseen and unheard angles within the solid supporting construction, which allowed layer upon layer of melody to pile on top.

Although unfortunate that Schubert never completed more than those two movements of this tremendous symphony, this interpretation naturally flowed into Bruckner after the intermission.  Indeed, we could hear similar low strings supporting ever more layers upon layers of sound.  So while Schubert died young, Bruckner the former church organist was in many ways his symphonic heir.  Blomstedt may not use the heavist stones when constructing Bruckner’s cathedrals, but his interpretations always demonstrate him as understanding the architecture.  The Swede may be an acquired taste, but indeed one worth acquiring.  The fully packed Konzerthaus audience clearly approved.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Mendelssohn, Bach

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Vasily Petrenko, the talented young music director in Liverpool (and, since I last saw him, now also in Oslo), recreated the magical world of Janne Sibelius at the Konzerthaus this evening, to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth earlier this week.

The tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter led off the program, with the opening cello solo emerging as if out of the floorboards.  The orchestra ensured that this dramatic reading was not just heard but also felt, as the sound started low and slowly enveloped the hall, transporting the audience into a mythical time and place, now made very real.

The Fifth Symphony closed the concert, alternately driving the drama forward and settling in on lush arctic landscapes, proposing a tension between the two moods throughout as it moved to its triumphant conclusion. Sibelius wrote several versions of this symphony before he created the final triumphant one, inspired by a flock of migrating swans.

In the middle, Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. Although I did not see the logical connection to put that concerto into a Sibelius concert, I appreciated the chance to hear a work I have not heard for a long while (and I hear the Sibelius violin concerto relatively frequently already). Bell’s full and warm tone blended beautifully with the orchestra’s, and the smiles that passed between Bell and his colleagues on the stage indicated strong mutual sympathy. Though not as dramatic as Sibelius, moving us from the icy outdoors into the heated salon, Mendelssohn made pleasant music for an early winter’s day, and this was a concert among friends.

Bell added one encore – an arrangement of Bach scored for solo violin by Mendelssohn – in which he charmed the hall with his tones while somehow producing the complexity of a chamber orchestra on his single instrument.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus


Robert Schumann’s setting of scenes from Goethe’s Faust does not get performed as often as it should, despite being one of the composer’s finest works (or, more accurately, a collection of works).  Goethe’s play is notoriously zany.  The basic underlying story line was an easy topic for composers to portray in music, but the metaphysical aspects were a bigger challenge.  Schumann attempted just that, taking only select scenes, never meant to be staged, yet encapsulating the tension and drama.  He began composition with the final scene (the same scene set by Mahler in his Eighth Symphony – indeed, anticipating Mahler but in Schumann’s mid-19th Century musical language) and then picked an assortment of scenes, composed in spurts and without necessarily trying to always match the same style) before concluding with an overture.  This means that in some ways this piece starts with the most simple scenes set to the most complex music, and as the scenes get more and more detached from the realm of reality, the music becomes simpler and more traditional.

The protagonists tonight in Vienna’s Konzerthaus were the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the intelligent young British star conductor Daniel Harding (a protégé of Rattle in Birmingham and later Abbado in Berlin, and who I thought should have gotten the job in Berlin earlier this year; although he regularly guest conducts the world’s best orchestras, he has yet to land a top-tier job – I last saw him last year at the helm of his current orchestra, that of the Swedish Radio).  Harding understood Schumann’s intentions, and led a masterful performance.  No staging was necessary – indeed, probably would have detracted – but drama showed in abundance.  The Symphoniker produced a full sound at just the right levels, with virtuoso solo playing when Schumann brought different instruments into the spotlight.

Christian Gerhaher portrayed the troubled title role (and Pater Seraphicus and Dr. Marianus) with dignity and a warm baritone.  Christiane Karg, as Gretchen, elevated the soprano lead.  Bass Alastair Miles produced a dark and devilish Mephistopheles.  And the supporting cast proved excellent as well, all of them acting out roles that could not be acted.  The adults of the Singakademie and the Staatsoper Opera School youth chorus supplied a sumptuous choral backdrop.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schumann, Bruckner

One of the last pieces Robert Schumann wrote before he attempted suicide (the consequences of which did lead to his eventual death) was a violin concerto for his good friend Joseph Joachim to perform.  Joachim did not think much of the work and it remained in the violinist’s possession, unpublished, when Schumann died.  Joachim eventually gave the manuscript to the Prussian National Library, stipulating that the work not be made public until 100 years after the composer’s death.  The Nazis, looking for an “Aryan” work to replace Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in the repertory, did not honor Joachim’s stipulation (Joachim was anyway Jewish), and so the work came to the public for the first time in the 1930s.

German violinist Christian Tetzlaff gave it a go this evening in the Konzerthaus with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under the young British conductor Robin Ticciati.  Unfortunately, Joachim’s assessment was correct, and the work really should have been left on the library shelf.  The tone is overall dark, and the tempo slow, but Teztlaff approached it with a warm sound and smoothed the jagged edges.  He could have nevertheless given it a more robust reading, but in the end it turned out as not one of Schumann’s best efforts.  The writing for orchestra was thin and generally unfinished (although Schumann considered it done).  An encore (sounded like a baroque-era violin sonata) by Teztlaff did not help much – far too dull to liven the mood.

After the intermission, however, the real revelations began.  Bruckner’s 4th Symphony, probably his most approachable symphony, receives so many performances that I did not think I could learn anything new tonight.  Ticciati’s interpretation was revealing and magnificent (and the Symphoniker executed to perfection).

Ticciati took the outer movements more slowly than usual, drawing out the harmonies.  Rather than overwhelming us with sound, he made the work subdued, indeed delicate.  This allowed for glorious contrasts when the brass choirs rang out, soaring over the stillness.  Rather than opening up the heavens, as Bruckner symphonies do, this one stayed close to the earth – letting us explore its intracacies with microscope rather than a telescope.  The universe Bruckner described remains huge – but we are just little specks within it.  Ticciati did not give a minimalistic interpretation at all – the orchestra and its sound remained full and bright – but by turning the whole work into a microcosmos he drastically altered the way we heard and experienced the world.

The slow second movement Andante danced a slow dance.  The third movement started to pick up tempo, so that the finale, while returning to the pensive structure of the first movement, actually began to demonstrate increasing tension, left unresolved until the final chorale.  God is great.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Nielsen, Tschaikowsky

While in Vienna to grab a few things before flying to the US, since I was leaving from Salzburg, I decided to grab a concert.

I have finally heard a piece by Carl Nielsen that I actually liked.  Nielsen took a ride over the Alps on a new-fangled automobile which apparently inspired him to write a flute concerto in a hurry.  Probably since there are so few flute concerti in the modern repertory, this allowed him more originality than trying to write more standard repertory, at which he usually took his time to produce spectacularly dull results.  This work had a degree of whimsy, with juxtaposed sounds – flute with several reeds, flute with tympani, and – most rewardingly – flute with trombone.  Marina Piccinini performed the solos, taking a little time to find her tone but once she got there she performed with warmth.  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste gave her excellent balance and support.

The concert had opened rather more prosaically, with incidental music by Sibelius to Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelleas and Melisande.  The Sibelius incidental music for this play is rarely performed (particularly in contrast with that by Fauré or Schoenberg) – apparently for good reason, as it is not one of his better efforts.  The problem came in that the music was too short and detached to ever fully capture the drama.  Sibelius actually set nine pieces to music, of which Saraste picked three (At the Castle GateIntermezzo, and Melisande’s Death) – maybe they would have been better served if left in the context of all nine.

For the second half of the concert, Saraste and the Symphoniker gave a spirited reading of Tschaikowsky’s Fourth Symphony.  The brass sounded out the fate motive, and spent the rest of the symphony ambitiously trying to overcome that fate, while the rest of the orchestra resigned itself to melancholy.  While the final chords echoed triumpantly over the Russian dancing, this reading gave a more anguished triumph.  The Symphoniker sounds great, although Saraste is a tad wooden, fully proficient and getting the tone right, but not as dynamic as he could be.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schubert, Schostakowitsch, Beethoven, Johann Strauß II

Woke up early on a Sunday for a wonderful concert by the Wiener Symphoniker in the Konzerthaus.  Philippe Jordan, in his first season as the orchestra’s official Chief Conductor (although long a fixture here, especially after the departure of Fabio Luisi), took the podium.  I first saw him conduct twelve years ago in Graz, and he has retained his ability to charm.

He opened the concert with Schubert’s Second Symphony, an early work which, though not yet mature and therefore not frequently performed, nevertheless exhibits Schubertian characteristics.  Jordan’s reading drew out the joyful spirit of the work, using a good control of dynamics to increase the drama.  The first movement, which opens slowly before jumping in head-first at breakneck speed, proved especially successful (Schubert developed this technique as he matured, and it influenced Bruckner who also deeply appreciated Schubert’s talent and originality).

Schostakowitsch’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra followed.  The composer wrote this sarcastic piece in 1933 to cheer himself up during one of the darkest periods in Russian history (which, sadly, has no lack of dark periods – indeed, it’s mostly dark, but the 1930s were especially dark).  Khatia Buniatishvili, the young Georgian star, took on the challenge, and in contrast to the Schostakowitsch piano concerto I heard yesterday in this case she dominated the stage.  The Symphoniker’s first trumpet, Rainer Küblböck, performed the trumpet solos, and nimbly switched from the somewhat sad muted lines to the boisterous and bright unmuted sections.  At the end, Buniatishvili came back out and gave us two encores (neither identified, and I do not know the repertory well enough to place them).  The first (clearly 20th-century, maybe Schostakowitsch?) nearly blew the roof off the hall – I did not believe a piano could produce that much sound, rivaling some orchestras in might.  The second (sounded like something one of the Scarlatti family might have written, but could have been a neo-classical throwback) had a wonderful song-like character, and Buniatishvili’s keyboard did everything except produce the words.

After the intermission, the orchestra stormed through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  Jordan took this at a faster clip than I normally would prefer (he probably followed Beethoven’s own erroneous metronome markings, which current theories suggest come from a broken metronome which displayed the wrong beat numbers), but got the orchestra to produce all the swinging excitement while gasping for breath.  Again, he utilized dynamics to underscore this dramatics of the piece.  He performed the first two movements without a break, going right from the initial Vivace into the slow movement, for maximum (and effective) contrast.  The final movement especially tied the concert neatly together, as it echoed the first movement of the Schubert symphony in the frenetic strings.  Although Schubert’s Second Symphony predated Beethoven’s Seventh by a full year, Beethoven was the older and more mature composer (and it would seem unlikely that Beethoven even knew Schubert’s symphony, as much of Schubert’s work in that period was developmental and not performed publicly or published until many decades after his death).

Jordan gave the enthusiastically-applauding audience another encore:  Künstlerleben by Johann Strauß II.  The Symphoniker lilted, and the audience danced out of the hall.  This orchestra sounds like it will maintain the level of quality it has built over the previous years under Luisi, almost to the point of rivaling its colleague down the street, the world’s best Wiener Philharmoniker (which sounds better when I am not sitting in the middle of its percussion section like yesterday).

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Holzer, Resch, Smetana

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra celebrated the so-called Austrian “National” Holiday (a misnomer – it is really a state holiday; there is an Austrian state, which this holiday celebrates, but I do not know what an Austrian “nation” is) in the Konzerthaus this morning.  Dynamic 33-year-old Moravian guest conductor Jakub Hrůša took the podium enthusiastically.

The concert opened with the Austrian Federal Anthem, music by Johann Holzer that was chosen in 1946 because people mistakenly thought Mozart had written it.  It is not a memorable work and we really do need to reclaim Haydn’s anthem stolen from us by Germany.  Although everyone in the hall stood up, no one sang (I don’t even know the lyrics – something mundane about being a land of mountains and streams).  More interestingly, the work Land by the young Austrian composer Gerald Resch followed, taking Holzer’s work and putting it into a blender.  The resulting piece resembled the original, somewhat shredded but generally smooth; the style kept morphing, so it was not always clear what Resch intended, except for a new way of hearing Holzer’s hymn.

But these pieces were just warm-up for Smetana’Má Vlast.  Although the “Fatherland” Smetana wrote about was Bohemia, Bohemia was indeed part of Austria at the time he wrote these six tone poems.  Often performed individually and separately, Hrůša performed them individually in a row, three on either side of the intermission, taking a pause and bow between poems except for the final two.  Hrůša put one harp on either side of the orchestra, and they opened the work playing off each other in alternation, setting the scene.  The Symphoniker’s strings were sumptuous.  The woodwinds were evocative of the landscapes they portrayed.  Hrůša gave the fourth poem, “From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields,” perhaps a little too martial a reading, not particularly a stroll through the countryside.  The final two poems, written four years after the first four, had an altogether different color (Smetana was also completely deaf then), and for those Hrůša captured the drama.

The fifth poem, Tabor, of course is named after the town where my great grandfather was born (although he had already moved off to Vienna, and then Manchester, by the time Smetana wrote this; and the Ehrlich family had almost certainly not settled there yet at the time the town was founded by Hussites in the enents Smetana portrays in the poem).  But still, a good connection for “My Fatherland.”

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)


My parents’ old friend, the irrepressible Erich Leinsdorf, would have called tonight’s interpretation of Mahler’s 3rd in the Konzerthaus by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony “interesting.”  While it began with a thoughtful concept, ultimately it did not convince.

Tilson Thomas took the introduction to the first movement much more slowly than usual and with more trauma.  The percussion and double basses provided a broken heartbeat in the background, while the brass played bitterly, clearly shaped by Tilson Thomas’ motions.  This led into the march at normal speed, representing Summer marching in.  Tilson Thomas’ summer clearly was not the hot sunny type, but rather full of storms.  The percussion kept the underlying march going, while the winds held back otherworldly and detached above, so that while the feet marched the head filled with melancholy.

The first movement actually worked.  The problem came that Tilson Thomas did not know where to go from here.  The next movements developed along the same lines.  But the tutti playing became altogether gooey and sentimental, while the solo lines gave contrast with detached sadness.  In the end, the woodwinds simply could not keep up the pretense, and lost their angst without finding relief.  This left the concertmaster and the brass alone keeping the alternate mood going.

Mezzo soloist Sasha Cooke gave a strong and haunting account in the fourth and fifth movements, but Tilson Thomas completely buried the choral parts (sung by the women from the Vienna Singakademie and by the Vienna Choir Boys), blending their voices into, and under, the orchestral music.

For the final movement, perhaps Mahler’s most mystical adagio, Tilson Thomas once again resumed the extra-slow tempo.  In doing so, he gave the orchestra a shimmering icy sound more appropriate for Sibelius (like Mahler, also a fan of and inspired by Bruckner, although having a distinct sound).  After the first horn entrance in this movement, the tone reverted to something more Mahlerian, but here the gooey sentimentality of the orchestral playing made the music more sappy than transformative.  The orchestra also tired, as evidenced by some missed cues and wrong notes.  And if Tilson Thomas wanted to take it slowly, he should not have made the playing so staccato, which further demystified the music.

As a final nail, Tilson Thomas did not hold the silence at the end, bringing his arms down right as the last note ended, thus making contemplation impossible.  The Vienna public certainly knows not to applaud until the conductor releases, but in this case Tilson Thomas did not hold at all.  The applause came politely, with some well-deserved huzzahs for Cooke, the concert master, and the principal trombone, trumpet, and horn during their solo bows, but otherwise everyone else just received some polite clapping.

In the end, while Tilson Thomas can get credit for originality, he may not have thought this one all the way through.  Or maybe the enlarged forces of the San Francisco Symphony normally sound this gooey (if so, then Tilson Thomas should take the blame for that, too, since he has served as music director of this orchestra since 1995).

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch, Dvořák

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra sounded both delicate and robust, in appropriate measures, as it navigated the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Tschaikowsky and the Ninth Symphony by Dvořák under the direction of Vassily Sinaiksy in the Konzerthaus this evening.  Sinaisky on the podium looked very much like the orchestra’s kind-hearted professor, engaging his orchestra fully, calling on individual instruments demonstratively, and peering studiously over the top of the reading spectacles perched upon the end of his nose, as he drew sound from the orchestra using his hands and without need of a baton.

Sinaisky, a conductor I had not previously heard of, was a stand-in for Neemi Järvi, who had taken ill.  It seems Sinaisky does not have any pressing engagements at the moment as he recently resigned as music director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater after a dispute with the new management (I suppose he could not have survived a few months longer for the management to completely change again).  The association with the Bolshoi, of course, sent up a red flag – there is probably no opera house in the world (outside Italy, of course) with so much political intrigue and thick mafia connections, surviving entirely on its reputation as having once been a world-class opera company.  In my time in Moscow, I discovered fully six opera venues in that city of superior quality to the once-proud and now farcical Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi has never recovered from firing Boris Pokrovsky as its chief over thirty years ago (Pokrovsky, perhaps one of the most intelligent opera directors of all time, had lasted three decades as the boss in that house and had personally seen to the maintainance of the house’s quality and tradition – rumor is that he allowed the theater to employ too many Jews for the government’s liking, and was fired when he refused to purge them).  On the other hand, Sinaisky would not be the first decent artist to think he might be the one to fix that hopeless theater after Pokrovsky’s ouster.  But Sinaisky failed, just like everyone else in the last thirty years, and now sits unemployed waiting for people like Järvi to get sick.

Tonight, the Symphoniker looked glad to have him, and he looked glad to have them too (certainly a far better orchestra than the band that sits in the Bolshoi’s pit).

Also on the program, coming between the other two works, was the Cello Concerto #1 by Schostakowitsch, which the composer wrote for his friend and fellow dissident Mstislav Rostropovich.  Intermixing humor and other-worldliness, this concerto is not easy on the cellist, who must get a broad range of sounds out of the instrument while maintaining a dialogue with the orchestra.  The Franco-German soloist Nicolas Altstaedt somehow got through it all intact.  But Altstaedt is not Rostropovich, and his sound lacked fullness, while his playing was labored to the point that he became completely out of breath, his wheezing projecting over the sound of his instrument.  The orchestra did its part, and Sinaisky did well to keep everything together, but the young Altstaedt might be advised to stick to simpler works at this stage of his career.

Philharmonia Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Lutosławski, Beethoven, Stravinksy

The Philharmonia Orchestra of London under Chief Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen visited the Konzerthaus this evening for an eclectic program of Funeral Music for String Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski, Symphony #7 by Ludwig van Beethoven, and the Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. One of these pieces was out of place: maybe the Lutosławski as the only one without dance rhythm, maybe the Beethoven as being fully tonal and coming from the wrong century, or maybe the Stravinsky as the fact that Spring really has not yet begun in Vienna this year despite having reach the end of May.

Lutosławski’s atonal Funeral Music from 1958 was worth a hearing, although I am not sure I liked it. He traced the circle of life, starting small, then growing in sound and liveliness, before ultimately receding to the original tone. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The string orchestra emerged somewhat murkily, however – and not clear whether this was Lutosławski’s intention or whether they simply sound this way normally.

I also had trouble understanding what to make of this performance of Beethoven’s Seventh. I did not hear the relationship with the modern pieces on the program. Although this symphony is known for its dancing rhythms, tonight’s interpretation did not dance sufficiently. I also had issues with the balance, as some instruments came across in the wrong proportions to others, and I could not make sense of it all. As a former trumpet player, I do tend to listen closely for the trumpet line, but tonight I did not have to, as Salonen clearly augmented it not only when the trumpets had the melody but also when they only payed to add background color (tonight, very much in the foreground). The trumpeters themselves performed using what looked like herald trumpets, so they wanted a particular sound. I did wonder if, maybe, Salonen had not done a soundcheck of the Konzerthaus (the orchestra is only visiting for one night) and may have gotten the balance wrong; or maybe my seat just picked up the sounds wrong (I do not go often to the Konzerthaus, and have never sat where I sat tonight; although acoustics are good, I do not know the nuances of the hall). I figured my question would receive an answer after the intermission, as the Rite of Spring requires a larger orchestra and has a lot of exposed lines, so I could see if the balance remained off or if it had been Salonen’s intention.

The Stravinsky indeed answered my question from before the intermission. What I heard in the first half must have been intentional, since no problems with balance or sound came across in the second half of the concert. Whereas I can now write off the two works before the intermission, the Philharmonia treated us to a downright righteous Rite of Spring afterwards. The whole orchestra spoke Stravinsky’s idiom, achieving all the nuances of tone, the contrasts between sweet Spring and harsh reality, the sacred celebration and the profane passion. I have no further questions. Well, maybe one: when will Spring arrive this year?

Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Sibelius, Tschaikowsky

I did not get to hear any live performances of Sibelius during my recent visit to Finland.  No problem: the Finns are always welcome in Vienna.  Tonight, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra was back in town at the Konzerthaus (I’ve heard them before, and indeed when trying to decide where to visit in Finland outside Helsinki, I even looked to see if they were performing in Lahti to go hear them there; they were not, so I went elsewhere).

This is a leading Sibelius orchestra, and the programming did not disappoint.  The concert opened with the Overture to the Historic Scenes (a series of tone poems not often performed these days), played in a very joyful manner under the lilting baton of new music director Okko Kamu.  Unfortunately, they only performed the overture, which ended abruptly leaving me (at least) wishing they would play the rest of the scenes.

Violinist (and apparently also violist and cellist) Sergey Malov, a young St. Petersburger, then came on to perform the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto.  In addition to playing three instruments at a high level, Malov has a large repertory, ranging from early music to modern, and his versatile technique and impressively full tone testified to the possibilities.  Sadly, although full, his tone remained small even as the music swelled.  Kamu and Malov made the opening of the first movement sound Mozartian (which worked, not surprisingly, since Mozart was Tschaikowsky’s favorite composer).  But the music soon moved into more a Romantic-period size, and whereas the orchestra crescendoed, Malov did not seem able and his line got lost.  After the first movement, he and Kamu had a quick word, and Kamu clearly modulated for the second and third movement, heavily restraining the orchestra.  While sounding good musically, this boxed the music in unnaturally.  I would gladly hear Malov again, but for Mozart or chamber music, not for any big concerti from the romantic period.  Happily, he treated us to some solos as encores, which highlighted his great and diverse talents.

After the intermission came the Second Symphony of Sibelius in an idiomatic reading expected from Lahti.  Oddly, the winds came in somewhat ragged now and then – this symphony is probably one of their main staples, and they should know it by heart without missing entrances.  By the final movement, they had gotten themselves organized, and we were treated to what I can only describe as a Viennese interpretation.  Sibelius and Mahler shared a common favorite living composer during their student years: Anton Bruckner, whose music had great influence on both of their symphonic outputs, albeit they followed different routes.  Tonight, however, the Lahti Symphony accentuated the broad chorales that Sibelius took from Bruckner, and gave us a final movement that glistened, sounding very much the cousin of the final movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Yabuta, Korngold, Bruckner

Tonight’s concert at the Konzerthaus presented three works in reverse chronological order, providing a somewhat nostalgic view of the program.  As part of its celebrations of the 100th anniversary of its construction, the Konzerthaus sponsored composition contests.  Shoichi Yabuta, a 30-year-old Japanese composer won the category for large symphonic work with “Anima,” received his prize before the concert began, and then got to hear the world premiere, with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Cornelius Meister.

Yabuta indicated in the program notes that he tries to blend eastern and western harmonics in his music through a concept called “heterophony.”  I was not clear that I heard any particular harmonics at work in this piece.  However, he used a Bruckner-sized orchestra to its fullest – not only in terms of the massive sound potential, but also in the ability to mix and match instruments, performing in an aggressive and muscular manner, somehow in context with each other. The result: surprisingly good, and enjoyable on an intellectual level.  Yabuta also kept the work at under about 15 minutes, understanding (as so many other modern composers do not) that the creation of so much creative noise becomes grating and unwelcome after a short period.  The piece included three movements, with sharp internal and external edges, so this never became dull and switched up sufficiently to maintain interest among the audience, which gave Yabuta a warm applause after.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto followed.  Korngold wrote this piece in 1945, dedicating it to Alma Mahler.  As a refugee from occupied Vienna living in the US, he had turned to Hollywood and produced film music, back when serious composers did such things.  Taking some of his favorite tunes from various movies, he recombined them into this concerto.  He also indicated that he did not write it for a latter-day “Paganini” to performon the violin, but rather for a “Caruso” – he wanted the violin solos to sing.  Tonight, French violinist Renaud Capuçon followed Korngold’s instructions, giving a softer and more melodic tone to thesomewhat sentimental music.  No hard edges here.

In its way, the single work after the intermission – Anton Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony – managed to link the two previously-performed works.  While I am not sure Meister offered a new interpretation on its own, the fact that he juxtaposed this symphony with the other two works on the program, and put it after the more modern pieces, did allow for a new consideration of Bruckner’s unfinished final masterpiece.  On one hand, it contained the usual soaring harmonies, a spirituality to match the Korngold concerto’s sentimentality.  On the other hand, Meister had the orchestra muscling its way through much of the new work – and particularly the second movement – and accentuated the organ stops and the drum highlights, thus tying Bruckner’s work to the Yabuta one at the start of the evening.  This was not a relaxed Bruckner Nine.

The orchestra itself sounded somewhat better than when I last heard it earlier this year in the Musikverein.  It has still fallen off from the level it had attained at the time it nearly got closed a couple of years ago, unfortunately.  I would say that perhaps it might know this music better than the works in the previous concert – this would likely apply only to Bruckner, though; the film-music of Korngold at least feels familiar even if it is seldom performed; but the Yabuta was certainly unfamiliar and very difficult.  Meister tried to keep things clear, but the orchestra repeatedly missed cues and did not always have accurate attacks.  Overall, however, it produced a much more open and strident tone than what I heard in the Musikverein eight weeks ago.  Tonight’s odd manner of eliciting nostalgic feelings may also have helped – this is still Vienna after all.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Mahler, R. Strauss

Vienna’s second major concert hall, the Konzerthaus, has booked surprisingly little of interest recently. I do not even remember when I last attended a concert there. Considering that it celebrates the 100th year of its construction this season, I would expect more, but the 200th anniversary of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, based over in the Musikverein, has overshadowed this one.

Still, I did get there for a concert tonight, with the Symphoniker in its usual form, joined by baritone Christopher Maltman and conductor Marc Albrecht, for a surprisingly short program. Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder opened before an intermission, and StraussAlpensymphonie came after the intermission.

For the Mahler cycle, Maltman (a British biochemist) performed in a dark, clean, but unexpressive baritone, allowing the emotion to come not from his interpretation but rather from the orchestra. Though proper, it did not produce sufficient psychological torment.

The Alpensymphonie allowed this orchestra to shine. Despite the enormous orchestra required for the work, Albrecht still knew how to accentuate individual lines. Though not the thrilling climb through the Alps that this work can orchestrate, this performance nevertheless demonstrated a good fulfilling stroll. Given the weather outside, I kept my hiking boots on.

Highlights from 2007


Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Best performance: Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 3, Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam (performing in the Musikverein, Vienna) under Mariss Jansons (February). An emotional, transcendental, and ultimately triumphant performance that made me lose my breath several times. From my front-row seat, however, I discovered that Jansons makes snoring noises when he conducts, which is a little disconcerting. Otherwise he is a tremendous conductor and enormously popular in Vienna for good reason.

Worst performance: The Gypsy singer Carmen Linares, with the Spanish National Orchestra (performing in the Konzerthaus, Vienna, March). Orchestra under Josep Pons and young group of Spanish vocalists performed concert versions of de Falla’s ballet Amor Brujo and opera Vida Breve. However, the supposedly well-regarded Linares croaked the portions of Amor Brujo requiring a Gypsy singer and she also rasped the (supposed-to-be-male) Gypsy singer role in Vida Breve. Spanish Gypsy singing is a special art, but she may be the first Gypsy singer I have heard with no musical qualities whatsoever, and she even required amplification.

Worst performance at a concert (non-musician): Giorgio Mamberto, Head of the European Commission office in Kosovo, Pristina (March). Before a concert of the Kosovo Philharmonic (which deserves credit for actually managing to schedule a concert) sponsored by the EC to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, Mamberto announced to all assembled that for fifty years there has been only peace in Europe, and that today Europeans can travel throughout Europe without passports and can work without visas. The Kosovars were not amused. The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman got up and replied that Kosovo would have loved to sign the Treaty of Rome fifty years ago, but unfortunately was otherwise occupied at the time.

Best opera: Gounod, Faust, Slovene National Opera Marburg (March). I somehow managed to go a whole year without making it to the Wiener Staatsoper, so took in my operas in other houses. This performance was anything but provincial, with a repertory cast under the Neapolitan conductor Lorenzo Castriota Skanderbeg (whose family claims it is descended from Albania’s mediaeval national hero).

Most fun at the opera: Offenbach, Orpheus in der Unterwelt, Volksoper, Vienna (September). The parody plot is very much dated, but easily adaptable by a good director thanks to Offenbach’s timelessly comic music. This version worked.

Worst opera: Ravel, Spanische Stunde, Volksoper, Vienna (October). The plot is a farce and should have been very funny, but Ravel’s boring music did not match up despite being well-performed. The evening was not a total write-off thanks to a terrific performance after the intermission of Orff’s Die Kluge, which was fun indeed.